Howard sets his position on the flag

Editorial, The Australian, 26 April 1996, p.12.

The Prime Minister's plan to ensure the national flag cannot be redesigned other than by a popular vote can hardly be faulted. There is a moral force to his position - that any change to the flag should be by popular vote. The Australian flag has strong popular support. There would be an outcry if any government were to change the flag simply by invoking the executive regulatory powers to which it had access. Of course, Mr Howard's proposal is not motivated by any desire to change the flag. Rather, by choosing to make the mechanism for change more inclusive, Mr Howard seeks to make it more difficult for any change to occur. The trouble for Mr Howard is that no law he passes to this effect can bind a future government.

Mr Howard's move, announced to coincide with Anzac Day, highlights a defect in the existing arrangements for proclaiming important national symbols like the flag. Such symbols should not be changed without direct reference to the people. Accordingly there is an argument that the system be amended in order to accurately assess popular sentiment towards proposed changes. Mr Malcolm Fraser similarly went to great lengths to test popular Australian feeling towards the national anthem. A popular vote on a number of options, including Waltzing Matilda, led to the adoption in 1977 of Advance Australia Fair. However, by associating his announcement on the flag with the day on which the nation commemorates its fallen soldiers, Mr Howard has placed his motives squarely on the political agenda. He did not directly link the Anzac legend to the flag, but his timing invites the misleading inference that the Anzacs fought and died under the flag we recognise today.

The Anzacs fought primarily under the British flag - the Union Jack - or an Australian red ensign. Today's blue ensign was one of three flags that figured in both world wars. It is worth noting that during World War II, the navy and the air force fought under British flags. It was not until 1953 that Australians unequivocally adopted todays flag.

The issue of the national flag is often associated, wrongly, with the issue of an Australian republic. The former prime minister, Mr Paul Keating, once thought that changing the flag would help promote the republican cause. But the issues are separate. The emblems of the Australian nation are secondary, at best, to the principles on which such a republic comes to be founded. In the public debate it is important that the issue of the flag should be seen as quite separate from that of the head of State.

If Mr Howard can secure passage of his proposed law, it will intensify pressure on any future government not to alter the flag except by national vote. But Mr Howard cannot bind a future government which might choose to repeal his law. In this sense, the real value of his move is open to question. Indeed, constitutional lawyers Professor George Winterton and Professor Cheryl Saunders argued yesterday that any such law could be unconstitutional precisely because it would purport to impose a referendum upon a future government if it sought to change the flag.

Mr Howard is facing criticism from the Labor Party that he is seeking to exploit Anzac sentiment and that his proposal is a gimmick. The Opposition, not wanting to be portrayed as being against a law that protects the national flag, made it clear last night that it would not oppose the legislation. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, says it is not an issue because no mainstream political party is seeking to change the flag.

While there is continuing debate over whether a new flag might more accurately reflect the historical and cultural mix of the nation, most Australians are content with the flag they have.

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